Boston Celtics: Return of Marcus Smart brings much-needed hope

There’s no denying how important Marcus Smart is to the Boston Celtics. He’s undoubtedly the organization’s heart and soul and has been for some time now. The Celtics have suffered massively in his absence this season, but having him back following an 18-game absence has the potential to completely turn this season around.

Smart strained his left calf muscle back in January and returned to the Celtics on a minutes restriction when they visited the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday night. Despite falling short to the Kyrie Irving, James Harden and co. it was a shining light for the Celtics to see all their players available for a game for the first time in what seems like forever. Smart managed 19 points, two rebounds and two assists off of the bench as he played just under 21 minutes.

Boston Celtics leader Marcus Smart missed an 18-game stretch due to a calf injury. His return brings new hope for the remainder of this season.

The Celtics went 9-9 without Smart. Most Eastern Conference teams got off to a slow start this year, so this record far from diminishes the Celtics season. However, the Celts have fallen quite a bit off the pace set by the current powerhouses in the east. Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee are clearly the teams to beat this season, and this is where the Celtics would’ve expected to be amongst before the season began.

For Celtics fans, it has been a blessing to watch star duo Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown put together All-Star first halves. But, these displays can only help the team so much. The Celtics have left plenty to be desired when it comes to team performances all year round. Through Saturday night, Boston currently sits fifth in the standings, just half a game back of Miami. If they’re going to catch the top-three, big sustainable runs are going to have to happen. But, the group of healthy players that they now have when you add Smart to the mix should really be enough to secure home-court in the first round of this year’s playoffs.

It’s a bit underwhelming when we’re talking about the Celtics and the fact that they should be able to get over that hump to merely secure homecourt after half of this season, but that’s the reality of this year. The Celtics aren’t the only team that’s suffered from covid-related and injury-related issues and won’t be the last, but they have to be better on the floor.

Smart provides just about everything for the Celtics. Yes, he’s not going to be a box score sensation but he never has been and still has major effects on outcomes of games. In terms of playmaking, Brown and Tatum have stepped up massively with 4.0 and 4.4 assists per game respectively. These are both career highs and speak volumes for how far these two have come in more areas of the game than one. It will prove to be a huge lift getting Smart’s 5.8 dimes per game back into the fold.

What has been irreplaceable, though, is Smart’s defensive ability. Smart is one of the most versatile defenders in the league and, without his leadership and play, the Celtics have suffered massively on the defensive end.

Boston currently ranks 19th in the league in defensive rating with a 112.1. In years gone by, Boston’s defense has been a major area in getting them deep into the playoffs. Without their elite defense, they’re just your average team. Smart has allowed 41.2/28.6 percent shooting on his assignments from the field and beyond the arc this season and brings the ability to cover all sorts of players. His switching ability and his ability to anchor the team’s defense will definitely make this team better on that end of the floor than what they have been without him.

The Celtics have 35 regular-season games to go. The story is far from written yet, and while it has been a disappointing start, there’s no need to worry yet. The Celtics are only 6.5 games back of the first-place 76ers having played one less game. The time to sort it all out is there.

Defensive play has been sloppy and the offensive organization hasn’t looked half as good as it did last season, but with the leaders back, this ballclub will finally find its direction. Not everyone is at 100 percent in terms of health but there’s time for them to be for when it really matters. The important thing is that everybody is there – Tatum, Brown, Smart, Kemba Walker, and the supporting cast. They just need to play their basketball.